Active Imagination

The method of ‘active imagination,’ hereinafter described, is the most important auxiliary for the production of those contents of the unconscious which lie, as it were, immediately below the threshold of consciousness and when intensified, are the most likely to irrupt spontaneously into the conscious mind.  The method therefore, is not without its dangers and should if possible, not be employed except under expert supervision.   JoAI, page 42 – this has to be continued – do not paste alone.

Dorn was an introvert and a very religious man, and if you have read the last chapters of Mysterium Coniunctionis, where Jung quotes him and comments upon his work, you know that he also tried in an absolutely genuine way to practice active imagination.  He tried to talk with the things he was dealing with.  AAI 22

   Jung sometimes defined the introverted psychological tradition in alchemy as the art of active imagination with material.  We generally think of active imagination as talking to our own personified complexes, and trying in our imagination and fantasies to personify certain of our complexes and then have it out with them, allowing the ego complexes or the ego to talk to these inner factors.  As you know, you can also do active imagination through musical improvisation or through painting, producing your unconscious material in the form of a painted fantasy; or by sculpting or dancing.  You can lend very different means of self-expression to the unconscious.  With your body you can dance a fantasy, or with a brush you can paint a weird image.  So why couldn’t you project your unconscious onto a chemical material and produce your fantasy with that?   Why, instead of putting a mosaic together with a fantasy image to express your unconscious situation, could you not take different materials which seem to express something in yourself and mix them together?  So that was an introverted aspect of alchemy, and naturally, while meditating on these factors, you can talk to them.   AAI 23

The introverted approach in alchemy shows that it is just as much an investigation of the collective unconscious as of matter.  In this purely psychological trend in alchemical symbolism, we can recognize what we are doing when we experiment with the unknown objective, basic layer of our own makeup.  Many alchemists practiced spontaneously what Jung discovered before knowing alchemy and what he called “active imagination.”  AAI 25

(Active imagination is a certain way of meditating imaginatively, by which one may deliberately enter into contact with the unconscious and make a conscious connection with psychic phenomena.  Active imagination is among the most important of Jung’s discoveries.  While it is in a sense comparable to Eastern forms of meditation, such as the technique of Zen Buddhism or of Tantric Yoga, or to Western techniques like those of the Jesuit Exercitia, it is fundamentally different in that the meditator remains completely devoid of any conscious goal or program.  Thus the meditation becomes the solitary experiment of a free individual, which is the reverse of a guided attempt to master the unconscious.  This, however, is not the place to enter into a detailed analysis of active imagination; the reader will find one of Jung’s descriptions of it in his paper on “The Transcendent Function.”)  


Active imagination has two parts or stages:  First, letting the unconscious come up; and second, coming to terms with the unconscious.  As I understand Jung, it is a natural sequence that may go on over many years.  Sometimes it takes a long time to assimilate the material.  Jung spent the last fifty years of his life coming to terms with the emotions and fantasies that at first overwhelmed him.  Yet there are also times when a single experience of active imagination includes both stages and it feels complete.  There are times when the two parts interweave back and forth, or they may occur simultaneously.  When he speaks of what it is ‘to struggle for hours with refractory brush and colors’ (Jung 1931, par. 106), he is both letting the unconscious come up and beginning to shape it actively.  JoAI 10 – Joan Chodorow

In his discussion of the first step, Jung speaks of the need for systematic exercises to eliminate critical attention and produce a vacuum in consciousness.  This part of the experience is familiar to many psychological approaches and forms of meditation.  It involves a suspension of our rational critical faculties in order to give free rein to fantasy.  The special way of looking that brings alive (betrachen) would be related to this phase of active imagination.  In his “Commentary on The Secret of the Golden Flower (1929) Jung speaks of the first step in terms of wu wei, that is, the Taoist idea of letting things happen.  There are many ways to approach active imagination.  At first, the unconscious takes the lead while the conscious ego serves as a kind of attentive inner witness and perhaps scribe or recorder.  The task is to gain access to the contents of unconscious.  JoAI 10 – Joan Chodorow

In the second part of active imagination, consciousness takes the lead.  As the affects and images of the unconscious flow into awareness, the ego enters actively into the experience.  This part might begin with a spontaneous string of insights; the larger task of evaluation and integration remains.  Insight must be converted into an ethical obligation – o live it in life.  For Jung, the second stage is the more important part because it involves questions of meaning and moral demands.  In the German language, this is the auseinandersetzung, an almost untranslatable word that has to do with a differentiating process, a real dialectic.  All the parts of an issue are laid out so that differences can be seen and resolved.  In Jung’s writings auseinandersetzung is usually translated as ‘coming to terms’ with the unconscious.  JoAI 10-11 – Joan Chodorow


The major danger of the method involves being overwhelmed by the powerful affects, impulses and images of the unconscious.  It should be attempted only by psychologically mature individuals who are capable of withstanding a powerful confrontation with the unconscious.  A well-developed ego standpoint is needed so that conscious and unconscious may encounter each other as equals.  Lesser dangers described by Jung include the patient getting ‘caught in the sterile circle of his own complexes’ or ‘remaining stuck in an all-enveloping phantasmagoria’ so that nothing is gained.  JoAI 12 – Joan Chodorow

In his final great work, Mysterium Coniunctionis, he shows how active imagination is the way to self-knowledge (‘Know thyself’), and the process of individuation.  From this mature perspective, he is describing much more than a specific meditative procedure or expressive technique.  In the deepest sense, active imagination is the essential, inner-directed symbolic attitude that is at the core of psychological development.  JoAI 17 – Joan Chodorow


“It is time to tell the story of the rainmaker.  Jung said to never give a seminar on active imagination without telling this story:

There was a drought in a village in China.  They sent for a rainmaker who was known to live in the farthest corner of the country, far away.  Of course that would be so, because we never trust a prophet who lives in our region; he has to come from far away.  So he arrived, and he found the village in a miserable state.  The cattle were dying, the vegetation was dying, the people were affected.  The people crowded around him and were very curious what he would do.  He said, ‘Well, just give me a little hut and leave me alone for a few days.’  So he went into this little hut and people were wondering and wondering, the first day, the second day.  On the third day it started pouring rain and he came out.  They asked him, ‘What did you do?’  ‘Oh,’ he said, ‘that is very simple.  I didn’t do anything.’  ‘But look,’ they said, ‘now it rains.  What happened?’  And he explained, ‘I come from an area that is in Tao, in balance.  We have rain, we have sunshine.  Nothing is out of order.  I come into your area and find that it is chaotic.  The rhythm of life is disturbed, so when I come into it I, too, am disturbed.  The whole thing affects me and I am immediately out of order.  So what can I do?  I want a little hut to be by myself, to meditate, to set myself straight.  And then, when I am able to get myself in order, everything around is set right.  We are now in Tao, and since the rain was missing, not it rains.’